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What is Acculturation?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Acculturation is, in a large sense, the process of two cultures coming into contact with each other and impacting each other’s language, behavior, and beliefs. This process is often viewed as a form of cultural assimilation in which one culture is taken into another culture until one group has little or no remaining cultural identity. Though this is a somewhat negativistic view of the process, much cultural research focuses on this potentially devastating aspect of the process. While the general definition of the term implies that both cultures might impact each other equally, more often the minority culture is more heavily impacted than the majority culture or the culture with greater power.

While the process of acculturation is studied within many fields, such as anthropology, history, and cultural ethnography, linguistics is a field that has taken special interest in how acculturation affects language. While languages can sometimes be irrevocably changed or eliminated through cultural contact and language replacement, sometimes the two languages will remain and only take on new words and minor changes from the contact. This is often seen in areas of great immigrant populations such as the United States (U.S.) where the prevalent English language has taken on many colloquialisms and words from other languages, such as Italian, German, Yiddish, and Spanish.

An acculturation model illustrates how the process of language migration can occur between members of one culture immersed within another culture. This often happens when someone undergoes second language acquisition (SLA) and learns a new language that is used by the new culture but typically is not the language used in his or her home. The acculturation model demonstrates how the process of assimilation occurs from belonging to a distinct “home” culture, through the cultures merging and the person feeling a part of both cultures, and finally to the person tending to identify more with the secondary culture than his or her “home” culture.

Linguists create acculturation scales that indicate how far a language has deviated in its use among some populations against samples of the original language form. For example, the language of Chinese immigrants in the United States might be compared to how the language exists in China. Such scales show the evolution of language as a mutable act of communication that adjusts to the speaker’s environment, and not just a static method of expression.

In other situations, a language shift can occur in both directions and a third language can be created that is a blend of the two original languages. Linguists point to languages such as Pidgin English, which is a form of English mixed with another language that developed in regions such as Papua New Guinea and West Africa. Pidgin English came from the need of people from two different cultures to communicate for commercial and trade reasons, but who otherwise had little meaningful contact. As such they did not impact each other’s languages as much as blend to create a simplified language that allowed necessary communication.

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Discussion Comments
By anon215764 — On Sep 19, 2011

I'm a teacher in Tapachula Chiapas and I used your article about evaluation, but I need your first name (G) to make a proper reference. I'll be glad if you can give it to me.

By wiesen — On Sep 28, 2010

I'm glad you found it helpful.

By wesley91 — On Sep 27, 2010

This article was very helpful. I am a social work student and I had to do an essay on acculturation, assimilation, and institutional discrimination. While doing my research, I found this article. Thanks for the great and incredibly useful information!

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